First as tragedy, then as farce

What is it with the conviction, held primarily in the West, that you can save yourself and the world (well, usually Africans) by shopping? 

School children in Mathare, Kenya in 2004 (Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, via Flickr).

The tony Canadian chain, Holt Renfrew, began selling “the bag that can change the world.” For just US$50, consumers can purchase a Tory Burch designed sack, some of the proceeds of which will go to feeding hungry African children. Feeding hungry children, wherever they may be, is a noble cause. But the persistence in undergirding a system that starves them in the first place detracts from the gesture.

The bags have been produced in partnership with Lauren Bush Lauren’s “FEED” NGO. Some background: Lauren Bush Lauren is the niece of the former president, George W. Bush, and granddaughter of another former president George H. W. Bush and married a guy whose last name is Lauren; and she models the bag. In a promotional/informational article in the Toronto Star, the gorgeous white face of charitable and entrepreneurial giving is foiled by the black mass of youthful faces representing all African children. It is hard to tell whether their little hands are waving to the camera or hailing their savior. Some highlights:

I definitely do believe a bag can save the world … [FEED] came from an idea I had as a student when I travelled with the UN World Food program … I was really inspired to support their school feeding program, which gives free school lunches to kids in 62 of the poorest countries … It’s not only insuring kids would have this one nutritious meal a day, but it gets kids to go to school and stay in school … After traveling and seeing this in action in so many countries, I wanted to spread awareness and help raise money and allow others to participate in world hunger, which is often overwhelming and seem like a far-away cause … I saw pictures of the food being distributed in big burlap bags and I thought that was cool and really reflected the cause … It’s important that the esthetic help raise awareness and is in line with what we’re trying to do … Some people might argue that it would not go with a black-tie gown … But that’s not what I care about.

I am struggling with the arithmetic: consumption of luxury goods = food security.

The straps of the tote were sewn in Spain. Given the precarious nature of the Spanish economy, I would hate to make an argument for doing such creative labour elsewhere. But the charitable face of capitalism would surely shine brighter if it mustered up the courage to manufacture, to set up shop in its zone of generosity.

This FEED/Tory Burch effort comes hot on the tail of an email I received the other day urging me to buy a pair of TOMS shoes, both because they are trendy (and they really are) and because my purchase will result in the company donating a pair of shoes on my behalf to a poor person in a developing country. Again, giving shoes to the shoeless is all very well and good, but we must ask, who labored to make these shoes, in which place, under what conditions?

It would be useful to pause and watch Slavoj Žižek’s RSA video tutorial on the ethical implications of charitable giving.


Further Reading

Beyond the headlines

Recent violence across the Eritrean diaspora is being instrumentalized by populists. But the violence is a desperate cry for attention and requires the Eritrean opposition to seize the moment for regime change.

Action required

Held in Nairobi this month, the inaugural Africa Climate Summit is an important step for the continent’s response to climate change. Still, the disasters in Libya and Morocco underscore that rhetoric and declarations are not enough.

The strange non-death of Bantustans

That South African political parties across the spectrum were quick to venerate the politician and Zulu prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, who died last week, demonstrates that the country is still attached to Bantustan ideology.